HL Deb 23 June 1892 vol 5 cc1808-19



My Lords, in laying before you a few observations relating to affairs in Borneo, I promise to be very brief. The subject is one which well merits the attention of Parliament, and specially at the present time, in view of the nature of the difficulties with which the North Borneo Company are contending, and which threaten to make it difficult to maintain, in the vast territory committed to their care, that well ordered government which it was the intention that they should exercise. Perhaps it is not superfluous to mention that, if you regard Australia as a continent, Borneo is the largest island in the world, abounding in vegetable and mineral resources; and, though perhaps not adapted for settlement, yet offering a wide field for British capital under European supervision. Borneo lies on the high road of our great trade to China and Japan. Its north-west coast, with which I am more particularly dealing, is hundreds of miles in extent, and it possesses several secure and capacious harbours. At Labuan and the mouth of the Brunei river good coal is found on the surface. In short you have every condition that would make Borneo suitable for a coaling station, which, in certain contingencies, we should scarcely like to see in possession of a hostile Power. Omitting earlier, but not unimportant, history, I may mention that in 1877 Sir Alfred Dent acquired from the native chiefs a perpetual lease of certain extensive territories, and that he applied for a charter of incorporation of a Company that he was about to form. After some considerable delay a charter was granted in 1881; and finally, in 1888, a British Protectorate was established over the whole of North Borneo. I can only approve of the policy which led to the granting of that charter and the establishment of a British protectorate. The country was derelict. The native chiefs were feeble, ignorant men wielding no authority. My own impression of the necessity for British occupation was very materially strengthened in the course of a morning call which I had an opportunity of paying some five years ago upon the Sultan of Brunei. A charter having been granted, the British North Borneo Company was formed. The Directorate included the noble Lord (Lord Elphin-stone), who I hope will say a few words upon the present occasion, and it included Sir Harry Keppel. The Chairman was Sir Rutherford Alcock, who, after years of efficient service, has lately retired in favour of Mr. Martin, the well-known banker. The authorised capital of the Company was £2,000,000 sterling; of this sum about £500,000 has been actually subscribed. The returns from the capital, which has been contributed by the shareholders, have been hitherto scanty; and I am bound to add that the shareholders of the North Borneo Company have shown exemplary patience. In saying this I make no reflections upon the administration of the affairs by the North Borneo Company. On the contrary, I desire to say that they have achieved a very large measure of success under extremely difficult circumstances. It must be obvious that in first setting up an orderly and civilised Government in an undeveloped country, inhabited by pirates and barbarous nomad tribes, the expenditure must be largely in excess of the receipts. Everything has to be formed; highways have to be made; a Civil Service has to be established; police have to be organised; and communications, both internal and external, have to be created. Since the first constitution of the North Borneo Company the expenditure has largely exceeded the receipts. No doubt the income is increasing, but the expenditure has more than kept pace in most years with that increase. And, unfortunately, the income is derived from precarious sources. The main source of income is the planting of tobacco. In the1 year 1890 a sum of more than £36,000 was obtained by the sale of land for the purposes of plantations. Unfortunately, partly from the inexperience in first cultivation in a new country, and partly from the uncertainty of the clin[...]e, the produce from the tobacco plantations, although of excellent quality, has been disappointing in quantity. The result is that at the present time the income derived from the sale of lands and from the plantations has temporarily ceased. The income derived from taxes and customs depends, almost as much as does the sale of land, upon the fluctuating fortunes of the tobacco planters. The income of the North Borneo Company varies with the number of Chinese employed upon the plantations. To put it shortly, the total income of the North Borneo Company has fallen from £101,000 in the year 1890 to £70,000 in the year 1891; meanwhile the expenditure has increased, and is now greatly in excess of the income. It must be obvious that it is extremely difficult to make a reduction of expenditure in Borneo in the present condition of that country. The main expenditure is incurred in the maintenance of a police force, and, if you largely reduce that police force, you run the risk of depriving the planters and their property, of that protection which it is the first duty of a Government to afford. In view of the financial difficulties, which I think I have sufficiently indicated, it seems to me that at no distant date it may be necessary for the Imperial Government to step in. My Lords, I would venture to say that, if that step should some day be taken, it would not be a misfortune for Borneo. The administration of the Government must in many Departments be much more efficient under the Crown than under any Commercial Company. I will illustrate this position by one or two practical examples. For the maintenance of law and order in North Borneo a Sikh police force under English officers is kept up. The Sikh police force is recruited from retired soldiers from the Indian Army. It must be evident that a Commercial Company can have no advantages for organising such a force as I have described. If you turn to the Civil Government, it must be clear that a service under the Crown has more prestige and attractions in many ways than can be offered by a private company. The Crown offers a wider field; it offers better prospects of promotion. The Government can give pensions. A Commercial Company, not sure of its future, cannot do so; and, unless you give pensions, it is extremely difficult to constitute a permanent Civil Service animated by a thoroughly loyal spirit. My Lords, I have had more opportunities than fall to the lot of most men of seeing the members of our Colonial Service at their work, and I desire to bear my hearty testimony to the efficiency and the zeal and the patriotism with which they discharge their duties in distant places, very far away from public observation; and I can desire nothing better for North Borneo than that it should be committed to their care. I feel confident that, if Borneo should ultimately be placed under the direct authority of the Crown, the progress will be more rapid, planters will feel more confidence, and railways and other public works, which are necessary for the development of the country, will be more readily undertaken. My Lords, whenever the time arrives when, in the judgment of the Government, it is proper that they should step in, as I have suggested they should, and take a general control over North Borneo, various plans will have to be considered. It might possibly be easily arranged that a Deputy Governor or Resident Administrator should be appointed in that country, acting under the supervision of the Governor of the Straits Settlements, and charged with the collection of revenue and the maintenance of order. It is quite clear that a Resident Officer of the Crown would be better able to deal with the local requirements than a Board of Directors consisting of busy men sitting in London, and unable to visit the countries over which they have no control. If North Borneo should hereafter be treated as a Crown Colony, the North Borneo Company might be kept alive as a land-owning company, and, by gradual sales of land, they might be able to repay to the shareholders the sums of money they have advanced under the encouragement of the Government, and for a great public object. Under any arrangement that is made, I feel sure that those who have supported the North Borneo Company, under the encouragement of a Royal Charter, would find, their claims duly and properly considered. Another alternative that suggests itself would be an extension of the control, now exercised by Rajah Brooke over Sarawak, over the whole of North Borneo. Sarawak is an admirable example of what can be accomplished in substituting order for anarchy, and civilisation for barbarism, by a single English family unaided by the Government, and working with a free hand. But the objections to giving that increased responsibility to Rajah Brooke, or any individual, are obvious—you place vast territories under the control of one man, who may or may not have a competent successor. There is a third and last alternative which I would suggest for the consideration of the Government. It is one that seems to me the preferable solution. It would be that a comprehensive plan should be devised under which the territories of the North Borneo Company, Sarawak—should the Rajah consent—the protected States of the Malay Archipelago, and the Straits Settlements, should be combined into one large colony. In some of these protected States, which are more advanced, there is a surplus; in others, which are less advanced, there is a deficit. The total revenues now raised from the territories I have mentioned amount to £1,500,000 a year. With such a large revenue it is plain that great things might be done. It would be possible to relieve the British taxpayer of any further charge for the maintenance of a coaling station at Singapore; the native territories might be more rapidly developed than at present; mines, which are now neglected in these native territories, might be worked; the Colony of the Straits Settlements, which now practically consists of two sea ports, being extended to the mainland, might probably, at no distant date, be connected by a railway with our great Indian Empire. My Lords, I desire to acknowledge that I owe the suggestion which I have ventured to place before your Lordships, largely, to Mr. Croaker, a gentleman whom I had the honour of conveying to Borneo at the time he was temporarily appointed to take charge of the duties of Governor of North Borneo, and whose long service under Rajah Brooke, and now under the North Borneo Company, make him an exceedingly competent authority. I may urge that the suggestion that I have made, for the adoption of a comprehensive plan for dealing with the countries which I have brought before your Lordships' notice, is in harmony with the process of grouping and federation which of late years we have adopted in various parts of the Empire—certainly to the local advantage, and greatly for the promotion of good relations between the mother country and all parts of the Empire. In conclusion I would submit to your Lordships that, sooner or later, it may become necessary, and I think it is already desirable, that the Government should exercise a more direct authority over North Borneo. With or without Imperial control, it is clear that the Imperial Government never can be absolved from responsibility for the good government of territories over which it permits the British Flag to wave.


Before the noble Lord answers for the Government I, as one of the Directors of the British North Borneo Company, would like to give a brief narrative of what the Company has done, and also at the same time to call your Lordships' attention to the state of the country now, as compared with what it was previous to the year 1881, when, by the grant of a Royal Charter, we assumed all the rights over a territory of 131,000 square miles, with a seaboard of nine hundred miles, and with a population estimated at 150,000—I say estimated at 150,000, because, although we have endeavoured by a census to arrive at what the population really is, there has been so much difficulty in numbering the scattered tribes in the interior that we are obliged to take a rough estimate. My Lords, when I first visited the country over forty years ago the greater part of the country, so far as we could see from the rivers which we went up, was covered with a dense forest, and, as I have good reason to remember, an almost impenetrable jungle. There was no industry, no trade, no revenue; slavery and kidnapping were rampant; there was no security for life or property; and, to put the whole thing in three words, "Might was right." On the east coast, where our seat of government now is, the population was sparse, and the settlements very scattered; and this was due entirely to the dread of the ravages of pirates by sea and to the very natural dread of head-hunters on shore. I think it is scarcely too much to say that every man living on or near the coast was a pirate at heart, and, whenever he had an opportunity, he was a pirate indeed; and it was for the purpose of destroying a strong piratical stockade, and dispersing a band of pirates, that the ship, to which I then belonged, was sent to the north east coast of what is now British territory. The last piratical raid upon our coast was in 1879, when the Balagnini tribe carried off or murdered sixty-five of the Bajans or Sea Gipsies — a wandering race living entirely in boats upon the sea shore. I referred to the fear and dread of head-hunters. I do not know whether your Lordships know about them. They are what one might call the "Braves"; they were supposed to be brave men, and at any rate they considered themselves so; but I think your Lordships will agree with me that a more cruel, cool-blooded, cowardly system of murder among any class of people never existed. Originally it was the custom to take the heads of their enemies who were killed in battle, and these were kept as trophies; but gradually it came to be considered as the correct thing that a man should be in possession of a certain number of heads. It is said, and I believe with truth, that the success of a young man, aspiring to the hand of a dusky maiden, depended upon his being in possession of one or more heads. And the victims might be members of a friendly tribe, or might be his personal friends. They were taken by treachery and ambush—it might be man, woman or child—a head was a head, and a head had to be taken. Only a few years ago many of the houses, or huts, were ornamented with a string of heads hung up round about them; and it even went so far that there would be a periodical balance of accounts between tribes; the number of heads taken or lost would be counted; and, if any deficiency were found upon the part of the stronger tribe, that deficiency was very soon made up. That was only one of the difficulties of old customs that we had to contend with. There was another custom, even more ghastly, and that was the custom of human sacrifice. The object of this human sacrifice was to enable the living to send messages to their dead friends or relatives; and for this purpose they would take a slave, bind him, and after certain religious ceremonies had been gone through, one after the other stuck a spear into him an inch or two—not to kill him—and at the same time give him a message to a dead friend. This went on till the victim died of severe wounds, freighted with messages which I have not the slightest doubt he never delivered. That custom still goes on—not in our country, but further south. There the custom is, if the people wish to send a message to a dead friend, that they club together and buy a slave, and, after the religious ceremonies are gone through, they all together thrust their spears into him, giving him a message for the dead. That at any rate has the advantage of being instantaneous death; whereas the old custom was what I might describe as slow torture. That was the state of the country up to not long before the grant of the Royal Charter. In our country, as in Sarawak, all these horrible practices are put an end to; order has been established; slavery and kidnapping are very rapidly being abolished; religion is being attended to—we have Protestant and Roman Catholic missions, with churches and schools; 650,000 acres have been leased for the cultivation of tobacco; a trade in timber with China and Australia has sprung up. That trade generally is also increasing is shown by the shipping returns, which show that in 1890 67,000 tons entered our ports, and 65,000 tons were cleared outwards. Then, my Lords, I turn to our revenue — our revenue proper. The noble Lord says that our revenue is decreasing and that bankruptcy is looking us in the face. Our revenue proper, that is without the sale of land, is rapidly on the increase. In 1885 the revenue proper was £22,000; in 1890 it was over £60,000; and in 1891 it amounted to over £71,000. The noble Lord, in referring to the decrease in our revenue, has, I think, fallen into this error: that he has called the money, derived by the sale of land for tobacco and other cultivation, revenue proper. That, my Lords, is necessarily a very fluctuating revenue, and we do not call it revenue proper. To show you how it does fluctuate, I may state that in 1888 the land sales amounted to £49,000; in 1889 to £51,000; in 1890 to £44,000; and in 1891 to £1,500. As I say, our revenue is increasing, and has increased between the years 1890–91 by over £11,000; and that, I must point out, without any assistance from the Government; we have asked for nothing and we have received nothing. On the contrary, it may be said, and it is said by some, that we have rendered assistance to the Government by having relieved them from the administration of the Island of Labuan which was a source of trouble. In one way, my Lords, the Government may help us—I do not say whether they will, but they could very materially—and that is by assisting us in the construction of a railway across the country. A railway is very much needed to open up the country. In that way the Government could assist us, somewhat in the manner as it has been proposed to assist the British East Africa Company. Then, again, as I have described, the natives formerly had no security for life or property—they had no protection—whereas now, under our rule, they follow their avocations in peace and safety; they hunt, they collect jungle produce, they collect edible birds' nests, gutta-percha, and pearls, and they also cultivate sago, pepper, and small quantities of tobacco. Then again gold is found, not in any great quantity yet, but it is found in the beds of some of the rivers in sufficient quantity to enable the Chinamen to make a living of four shillings a day; and I have not the slightest doubt that some day we shall find the matrix, and that it will become a profitable industry. And coal we know exists in some parts of the country. My Lords, I quite think, with the noble Lord opposite, that the time may and will come when the Imperial Government will be constrained to take over the administration of North Borneo. I think so on account of its geographical and strategic position, within a thousand miles of Singapore, and situated in a direct line—almost niidwav—between Australia and Hong Kong, with some of the finest harbours in the world round the coast, and especially the east coast. Whether the district could be administered more economically under Imperial than under company rule is, I think, open to question. There is no doubt, as the noble Lord has pointed out, that Imperial Government has many advantages—necessarily so—that as a company we cannot possess. But, if a comparison be instituted with the progress of any modern Colony, British or foreign, it will be found that there is not one which can show such good results in so short a time, and, at so little cost. My Lords, I confess I doubt whether the suggestions shadowed forth by my noble Friend would altogether recommend themselves to the shareholders, unless, of course, the Government are prepared to deal with us on very liberal terms. The shareholders have waited patiently for the reward which they have every reason to hope will be theirs at no distant date, and, unless they were very liberally dealt with, I think they would hesitate to abandon the prospect which they have kept steadily in view for so long. I admit that, so far, the venture is not a financial success. Our expenditure exceeds in a measure our present revenue; but there is no reason to suppose that that will go on; on the contrary we are able to make very large reductions which will at any rate balance them. We have had, with all our difficulty, the satisfaction of feeling, and I think we may take a pardonable pride in feeling, that we have been laying the foundation of what promises to become a thriving and prosperous Colony of the British Crown.


My Lords, the noble Lord who first spoke drew a somewhat gloomy picture of the Company's position; the parts in shadow were very largely predominant over the parts in light; but another painter has been at work since then, and has thrown in a few lights, and certainly has made it a more agreeable picture to look upon than it was when it left the hands of the noble Lord opposite. I would observe that to my mind it is not at all clear how the state of things would be improved if this territory were made a Crown Colony, unless indeed at the expense of the British people, by grants in aid and loans, and in other ways by which money is drawn from the pocket of the British taxpayer. A colonial administration, though it may have a considerably greater prestige than the administration of a company, could not certainly be more cheaply or more economically carried on. The great complaint against colonial government is that the staff which the Governor or the administrator has is always in excess of what the colonists think necessary, and they look upon the staff of the Colonial Government as a happy home for Englishmen. I do not really believe that it would be possible, merely because a Colonial Government would be able more easily to engage Sikhs perhaps for the police, for a Colonial Government to be administered more cheaply and economically than that of a company. The territory has already been placed, as your Lordships are probably aware, under Her Majesty's protection by an Agreement made on the 12th May 1888; so that as regards any outward attack the Company are well secured, and it would be in no better position if the territory were turned into a colony. The revenue that is derived from duties and taxes could not be diminished, unless indeed, as I said before, at the expense of the British taxpayer, or unless the noble Lord opposite can prove that a Colonial administration is absolutely cheaper and more economical than the administration of a Company. My Lords, I have ventured to throw out these suggestions; but, so far as regards the question really put before us by the noble Lord, I would submit that it is not ripe for consideration. It has been stated by the noble Lord who followed that the Company have not sought to put an end to the Agreement of 1888, by which Her Majesty's Government are bound not to interfere in the administration of the Company except so far as is provided by the Charter. If the Company desire to raise this question they will of course do so in an official form, with full particulars of their position, and with a statement of the financial conditions which they are ready and prepared to meet. Then due consideration will, of course, be given to a statement of that kind. What the result of such consideration would be I am certainly not in a position to say; nor would it in my opinion serve any good purpose now to discuss any of the other plans which have been suggested by the noble Lord opposite for getting rid of the Company. From what he has said I do not think that he has sufficiently appreciated the difficulties that would necessarily follow upon any of the changes he has suggested.